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One of the most intense places on the planet, India’s Varanasi is a challenging blend of burning bodies, sadhus and sacred weed. WORDS: Caroline Eden

“Madam, I am warning you, it is not advisable to be out after 6pm tonight,” Kush, my pop-eyed guesthouse manager, says, wagging his chubby finger at me. Then, with a Hindi head wobble, he adds: “It’s Shiva festival. Big festival! 100,000 people coming to Varanasi.” And, with that, I misguidedly choose to ignore travel rule number one – always listen to the locals.

At about 9pm, after a leisurely curry and a cuppa at a small café in the company of a handful of other backpackers, a strange, collective unease begins to flow from table to table. 

Beyond the café, in the ancient, dung-strewn alleyways, are long lines of men. A ragged bunch, barefoot and red-eyed, they’re walking conga-style, in the direction of the Ganges River. Some are punching the air, others are thwacking handmade drums with sticks. 

SKIP TO:

• An insider's guide to Varanasi 
• When to travel, accommodation in Varanasi, and how to get there

Varanasi’s lanes are so narrow that they usually only accommodate two people abreast, but now the number is five, six, even 10 across. The marchers don’t appear aggressive, but the sheer number in the thronging lines is intimidating. 

The café’s sociable owner, Bablu, gathers his diners into the corner for a quick heads-up. “Shivaratri is the mother of all festivals here. It is celebrated all over India, but as this is home to the Ganges River and Lord Shiva, many come here to walk tonight, visiting different temples.” 

Questions erupt. The main one being – how on earth will we get through the crowd to our guesthouses? The Old City stretches several kilometres along the western bank of the Ganges, and we are all staying in digs in different parts of the city.


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Tourists' guide: Visiting Varanasi - India's holiest city is not for the faint-hearted
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